At the recent 41st International Mr. Leather contest, Jack Thompson became the first trans person of color to take the title. (Tyler McCormick was the first trans man to win, in 2010.) While the outpouring of congratulations on social media from all corners of the leather world was immediate and enthusiastic, a few instances of transphobia marred the celebration. Most notably, a Facebook post by the president of a leather club questioning whether the win was politically motivated, which resulted in widespread condemnation of his “opinion” and his ouster from his position.
Here’s the thing. Thompson’s win was absolutely politically motivated. But not in the way the backwards thinking writer of that post meant it. Queerness is political. Living a visible life as a queer person of color is particularly political. Living as a queer, trans, HIV-positive, person of color who proudly and openly represents the leather community is really, really, really political. And recognizing all of these things by making such a person the very visible face of a community is a political statement.
During the onstage interview portion of the competition, Thompson said “There’s people in this room right now that don’t believe I’m man enough to be on this stage.” While this was likely true, the vast majority of the audience believed he was absolutely man enough, giving him a thunderous standing ovation. And following the smattering of negative comments after his win, leatherfolk around the world were quick to respond with unqualified support for the man considered the representative of the leather community.
Controversy surrounding the winner of a leather contest may strike some people as being not all that important. But competitions like these are becoming interesting barometers of larger shifts in society.
The elimination of the swimsuit competition (and, allegedly, all scores for appearance) from the Miss America competition and the intense criticism of the recent Miss India pageant for selecting only light-skinned finalists are two examples of the public demanding scrutiny of and changes to contests that are meant to reflect society as a whole. And the International Mr. Leather contest may be more interesting than most examples given its history of celebrating “traditionally masculine” stereotypes.
As Pride season commences, it is important to embrace everything about our community that is political. “Politically motivated” has somehow come to erroneously mean something negative, when in fact it is, or should be, exactly the opposite. Recognizing the accomplishments and abilities of people who have historically been overlooked precisely because they do not look or behave according to some arbitrary definition of what is desirable or acceptable is indeed political, because it acknowledges that we have been wrong to ignore these things for far too long. It is political because it acknowledges that our community is far more diverse than we have been portrayed to be, that who we are as people is richer and more vibrant than the images and words that have been used to describe us, or that we have used to describe ourselves. It is political because it acknowledges that we are changing how we think about ourselves, about others, and about our community.
Every year at Pride time we see posts on social media reminding us that the Stonewall riots of 1969—widely believed to have launched the modern gay rights movement—were started in large part by queer people of color, trans people, butch lesbians, drag queens, and others who did not look or behave like the majority of the people they were standing up to.
Too often, this reminder is forgotten not long after. Thompson’s win at a leather contest is a reminder that we cannot celebrate the diversity within our community only once a year. In the America we currently live in, being proudly queer cannot be anything other than a political statement. But it is as much a statement to our own community as it is to the non-queer community.
Jack Thompson did not best 67 other men to become International Mr. Leather simply because the judges or organizers wanted to make a statement. He won because everything about him represents what the leather community has long been about—proudly embracing who and what you are. (Also, he looks super-hot in leather.)
In selecting him, however, the judges rightfully and boldly acknowledged the political nature of living our lives openly and without fear. Equally important, they acknowledged in a very visible way that our community needs to truly accept and celebrate the diversity we talk so much about. Good for them. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com